(Note: Last week, we wrote how Lander lost 550 high paying iron ore mining jobs and Fremont County lost 2,000 high-paying uranium-mining jobs in the 1980s. This is how local leaders turned Lander around.)
Impartial observers like the late Gov. Ed Herschler would point at Lander as the “worst hit” town in the state during the 1980s Wyoming depression. Those of us who lived through it certainly agreed with him, although that distinction brought us no solace.
There was work to do. Our progressive mayor, Del McOmie, appointed an Economic Development Commission (EDC) in the early 1980s.
That involved some interesting work, but it was also frustrating. The FDIC had closed one of our most aggressive banks and its president was sent to prison. It never reopened. Other banks were running tight and didn’t have money to lend to start-up businesses.
Our local EDC talked to lots of entrepreneurs but without money few of these folks could get started.
I went to the mayor and suggested we form a for-profit corporation to provide money for new businesses. We called it LEADER Corporation. We recruited 100 people who invested $1,000 apiece. With this $100,000 nest egg, we launched an effort that over the next 34 years accomplished a lot.
Our treasurer, Rick Fagnant, estimated LEADER leveraged $4.5 million over the past 34 years, created or saved 200 jobs and helped more than 35 businesses, besides working on every other type of economic development activity imaginable.
There were many wonderful people who worked to create the Lander Renaissance, such as the chamber manager, the late Linda Hewitt. She had heard Bill Schilling talk about Main Street beautification in Cody and decided to duplicate it.
The Denver Rocky Mountain News sent reporters to Lander to cover how our business district had been decimated. There were even broken windows in stores on our 300 block, formerly the most expensive real estate in town. Most of those stores were shuttered.
It was ghostly, like in “ghost town.” Their news headline read “Modern Ghost Town” for their story about Lander’s decline.
We weren’t ready to give up yet.
LEADER met every week. I was the president for the first three years. It became a support group for the folks who hadn’t left. I called those weekly meetings “Workaholics Anonymous.”
More than 600 homes were empty and being foreclosed on. Downtown was almost devoid of operating businesses. Our iron and uranium mines had been closed for years and the future didn’t look much better than the present.
A targeted industry study determined there were four bright economic opportunities:
• Government. Because of Lander’s location, large federal offices like Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state offices like Game and Fish not only would be staying but might even expand. All did.
• Outdoor education. Lander is home to the National Outdoor Leadership School. It was turning into a terrific employer. Today, it employs 1,200 people. A few years later NOLS completed construction of a $9 million international headquarters.
• Medicine. Despite the economic depression, there were 85 medical doctors on the staff of the new 107-bed hospital. Medicine continued to be a huge money-generator to the local economy and many doctors invested in other businesses.
• Art. The most interesting loan made in the early days of LEADER was to Monte and Bev Paddleford who founded Eagle Bronze. Over time it became the largest art foundry in the country.
The bottom of Lander’s depression probably hit in 1987, when we launched a “Vigorous Retiree Recruitment Program” as a way to find people to buy all those 600 homes. It worked well. The Welcome Wagon said at the end of the first year, more than 99 new people had bought homes.
The hard-working people of Lander had pitched in and made a dream become a reality. By 1992, author Norman Crampton selected Lander as the number-five best small town in the nation out of the 100 he listed.
His book was published the following year and Lander was on its way. The Chamber of Commerce had over 400 inquiries from outsiders wanting to know about Lander. Soon, most of those empty houses were sold and Main Street had filled up with thriving new businesses.
The mines had, indeed, closed. But good people in key positions were able to visualize a bright future that could be created without having to rely on mining. That goal has been accomplished.
Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books. His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.